This article was originally published in Summer 2018 Timbrel, “Empowering Women: Claiming Healthy Personal Boundaries”
Where are you on your journey to claiming personal boundaries?
Littlewolf: I am a work in progress. I make boundaries and then reassess and make revisions. When I first became aware of boundaries as an adult, I realized I was putting up walls instead of fences. Now I tend to think that I put up barbed wire fences—where the fence can poke others and it can poke me. I’m still working on a better analogy for my personal boundaries, but the barbed wire fence gives me a fabulous mental picture of where I am right now.
Groff: Over the past few years, my awareness of boundaries has increased. With friends, my spiritual director, and my therapist, I have processed times in my life where boundaries were crossed and violated. Now I’m considering what I learned from those situations and what I want to pass on to my young daughters. I try to strike a balance between accepting what was not my fault while also embracing the concept that I’m not powerless to set boundaries or to say no.
Staton: Just when I think I have a handle on my boundaries, someone will say, “I hate to ask but I’m really in a bind…could you possibly….?” and whamo, I get hooked. Not that helping someone in need is a bad thing, but it’s a slippery slope for me. People in need are my weakness. My life, my mission and my vocation are about helping people. I’m the campus counselor at a university. So when someone “needs” me, I am tugged by my life’s purpose to jump. But it’s cost me. My first year at my current position, students would tell me, “I’m so busy, I can’t meet at any other time but lunch.” So… I would do it. And just like clock work, I would miss meals, work long days, get run down, end up with bronchitis and miss several days of work where I had to reschedule 16 to 24 appointments just so I could make room for those few who couldn’t meet any other time but lunch. It turns out the biggest violator of my boundaries, is me. That example is from eight years ago, but I just did it again. So I don’t know that I am where I want to be yet, at almost 49 years old, in my boundaries journey.
What obstacles do you face in setting boundaries?
Littlewolf: One obstacle that I face is that when I am tired, it is easy for me to sway my boundaries or give people the benefit of the doubt at my expense. I also tend to second-guess myself and search for external validation that the boundary I set was “OK”. I also tend to realize I didn’t think through my boundaries until after I realize one has been broken, rather than honoring my boundaries from the start.
Groff: People-pleasing is my biggest obstacle! After I set a boundary, I often second-guess myself or feel the need to justify my decision or overprocess it with a friend or my spouse. Instead, setting a healthy boundary should mean letting go after the decision. Yes, boundaries can be evaluated later, but I think it’s best to move forward confidently.
Staton: Turning down new or exciting experiences is an obstacle for me. I’m good about politely telling someone when I’m uncomfortable in a situation or when something doesn’t feel physically safe. I’m really good about saying no when I don’t want to do something, but quite frankly I like to do stuff that sounds interesting and exciting. When someone asks me to do something I’ve never done before, my boundary-awareness suddenly takes a nap, which can be harmful. For example, today I saw a familiar face and we struck up a conversation that led to my mouth making a commitment that I didn’t fully process. Relive my college years and sing in a coffee shop? Sure, you bet! I probably don’t have time for that. But doesn’t that sound fun and exciting? But if he had asked me to wash his car, I could have absolutely said no. I’m a work in progress.
What is one boundary setting goal you have for yourself this year?
Littlewolf: My goal is to pre-think, or establish boundaries, before they are broken. Right now, I tend to recognize my boundaries after they are violated, instead of recognizing my needs ahead of time. I want my boundary setting to become a natural way of being.
Groff: I am reading the book Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much this year—one passage a day. This passage on busyness is important for me! “How much of the constant repetitive housework I do is because of my need to keep busy and not because it actually needs to be done?… Often, our busyness is a subtle form of procrastination that keeps us from what we really need to be doing.” This year, I hope to do a better job of setting aside what can wait and embracing the moments of connection in my professional life and life as a new mother.
Staton: Every step backwards gives me the opportunity to re-group and re-examine my choices or im-pulsive decisions that may put me in an unhealthy place, and I really do learn from them. But that doesn’t mean I won’t make them again. In therapy there is a saying that “Relapse is part of recovery” and that applies here too. I won’t ever be perfect. The day I think I have it all under control and let my guard down, will undoubtedly be the day I am most at risk! Who knows what I will agree to then! So I guess my goal would be to remember that I can make mistakes while still moving forward.